This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of the Stand.
At our 2013 Convention, delegates voted to hold Leadership Symposiums each Fall in non-Convention years, to ensure that leaders from each sector across the province are kept up-to-date on key issues facing the union, and are able to have a say in what actions should be taken in response.
On September 24, 140 NSGEU members – including NSGEU Executive and Board of Directors, members, Local Presidents, Regional Council Chairpersons and Occupational Council Chairpersons – were invited to attend our second Leadership Symposium.
This year’s symposium was chaired by NSGEU President Joan Jessome, and included presentations from NSGEU’s legal counsel, our National body (the National Union of Public and General Employees), NSGEU’s Executive Director, Directors of Negotiations and Servicing, and our Communications team. It also included break-off sessions for participants in the afternoon.
A LEGAL PERSPECTIVE
The day started with a stirring address from lawyer Ray Larkin, who summarized the very difficult two years the NSGEU has lived through under the McNeil government who took office in October 2013. He stressed that the next two years were sure to be as challenging, and that the key to our continued success lies with the leaders of this union, who must ensure they lead with necessary resolve to do what needs to be done.
Larkin reminded the delegates of the Liberals’ failed Bill 1, which was designed to diminish the bargaining strength of our union – or as he put it, to “really to drive a stake into the heart of NSGEU.” He explained that the Liberals continue to target us for two reasons:
1) The NSGEU is the biggest, most effective union, and has always used big bargaining units to push the envelope on establishing wage patterns that have been extended to entire public service.
2) Politically, they are using us as their “public opinion,” pitting non-union workers against public sector workers.
If Bill 1 had succeeded, government would have been able to put the NSGEU in a place where we could no longer lead in bargaining.
Ultimately, government was trying to impose something that was wrong, and because the membership refused to allow them to get away with it, they failed. We maintained the democratic principle that workers deserved to decide who would represent them, and ultimately prevailed against a majority government that was determined to bring us down.
Since then, the government has backed down on a number of fronts, including backing away from a decision to further privatize our home support services after home support workers mobilized and began informing the public of the dangers of their plan.
Now, they have turned their focus to the Civil Service, pitting the non-unionized against the unionized, asking questions like: “Why should you get a long service award when the ordinary person doesn’t even have a pension?” They have also pointed their anger at the job security provisions of the civil servants, refusing to abide by the Memorandum of Agreement in their contract that states that while government can reorganize as it pleases, it cannot discard workers.
Larkin points out that while we can fight all of these things in the legal system, these fights take a long time and workers suffer in the interim. Legal processes only succeed because of the political will of the members and a show of strength from their leaders. He stressed: “We can’t simply leave matters to the chief negotiators and lawyers: workers have to mobilize!”
Privatization is yet another way this government is trying to hurt public sector and unions: they want to sell the right to operate the Land Registry, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and the Registry of Joint Stocks. to companies that will have the right to operate them for a very long time. This one-time big cash payout will help them balance their budget in time for the next election. Ultimately, however, these companies end up raising fees, which is bad for the public. Larkin cautioned that if this government successfully privatizes our registries, they will look at selling off as many services as they can.
We need to make Liberal MLAs worry they will lose their seat in the next election, and show them that there is a price to be paid if they choose to support these harmful actions.
Our victories thus far show we can be successful against this government!
LABOUR RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
After Larkin’s presentation, NUPGE’s National Secretary-Treasurer Larry Brown spoke about the state of global labour relations.
He recalled coming to Halifax to be a part of our fight against Bill 1: “I remember saying, when the legislation was being passed, that people in the legislature might think the fight was over, but it was just beginning.”
He commended the membership for standing up against the McNeil government’s major attack on labour rights in Nova Scotia, and explained that their proposed legislation basically said the workers didn’t matter.
But NUPGE has always maintained that labour rights are human rights (they are enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms). Brown pointed out that if you asked Canadians if they support human rights, almost all would say yes. But somehow, there is a breakdown when it comes to labour rights.
Today, we are facing greater income inequality than ever before. All gains have gone to the top 1% or top 0.1%, and even after the great recession, there have been no improvements: we see continued unfair taxation and mounting attacks on labour rights.
Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) acknowledges there is a direct correlation between declining labour rights and rising income inequality.
Recently, the labour movement has won some significant victories on behalf of workers. Last year, for example, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled every Canadian worker has the right to strike.
Regardless, we are still seeing government passing legislation disregards this ruling, and making decisions to do things like privatize public services and give money to their friends, rather than make life better for all.
Brown reminded the delegation that when unions are fighting for better labour rights, we are actually fighting to improve society, and we should never apologize for this. And while unions don’t need their permission to exist, governments absolutely do need our permission to govern!
He also echoed Larkin’s caution that there is a tendency to expect the President of the union to fix everything. But the President speaks for the members, and it is the members’ responsibility to ensure government understands they are dealing with all 30,000 members of the NSGEU.
A WORD FROM THE PRESIDENT
President Jessome took the stage after Brother Brown to thank the delegates for supporting the NSGEU’s efforts, and to remind them that it’s not one person that leads the union, its’ all of us!
She explained that because of resolutions passed at the 2014 Special Convention, she knew we had the power and resources to successfully take on this government. At that time, we had no way of knowing that we would be facing legislation like Bill 1, but we had an inkling that we were in for the fight of our lives.
It is critical that people are aware that we are member-driven, and that our public campaigns are actually supported by our members, through their representatives on the Board of Directors.
When there is an attack on the NSGEU, it’s an attack on all of us! We’re going to fight to keep services public. They’re not selling our jobs, our services! It’s not going to happen!
She has been told that when Premier McNeil is asked about our campaign, his only response is that he’s sure members are upset their dues are being spent on ads against him. But he never actually addresses the message of the ads.
NSGEU’s Executive Director, Robin MacLean, updated delegates on the status of negotiations.
She explained that we are in a somewhat unique situation: the vast majority of our contracts are open and we are preparing to begin negotiations against the most hostile government we’ve faced in 20 years.
MacLean added that while any government’s natural inclination is the restrain wages, the McNeil government’s approach comes down to outright union busting. She believes the members are very aware of what’s at stake, adding that we normally would be inundated with calls from members wondering why negotiations have not started. This time, it’s the reverse: the employers are most keen to get started! This is because they are under pressure from the Premier’s office, which is bound and determined to balance the budget in time for next election, at any cost.
Political timing is driving their desire to get collective agreements negotiated with the public sector. MacLean explained that the public sector unions’ meeting of August 18th with Finance Minister Randy Delorey solidified their focus is on wage restraint and their desire to reach five-year agreements.
It is one thing to negotiate five-year agreements with substantial improvements for the members. But, in this case, we know government is planning to give little to nothing.
The NSGEU does not bargain concessions, so if government is seeking savings by reducing what our members already have, we won’t be doing that.
She pointed out that this government has already walked back from some controversial positions, such as the hinted abolishment of the retirement allowance. Still, she anticipates that we are looking at an era of two-tier benefits, and the NSGEU will not negotiate less for our sons and daughters!
“I’m not one to talk tough publicly, but I’ve been through enough fights to know that with the methods we’ve developed and the support of the members, we will win,” she said.
It’s important that members not simply look at this round of negotiations through the lens of self-preservation. We need them to understand this isn’t just about their individual circumstances: It’s an issue of principle.
Weakened job security is another area of vulnerability. This government has already refused to apply provisions of the collective agreement properly, and are further threatening our members’ job security through privatization efforts.
MacLean explained that the long-term care, home support, group home and civil service bargaining committees met in mid-September, and a strategy has been developed for Civil Service bargaining. She cautioned that acute health care negotiations will be difficult because we have to deal with the government’s essential service legislation and learn how to negotiate with the other unions through the new Council of Unions.
She asked that members continue to share information they learn in the workplace about potential cuts to programs, because that information is not being communicated to the union through the employer, and the information they give us helps us stay on top of what’s really going on in the workplace.
Shawn Fuller, Director of Negotiations & Servicing for the Health Care team, spoke about two of the most significant things happening on the acute health care side of the union currently: fulfilling the requirement for essential services and working cooperatively with other unions in the Council of Unions.
On the acute care side, Fuller explained that we have started to elect essential services committee, which will ensure we provide a certain level of service in the event there is a strike.
Developing the framework for essential services agreements needs to be done correctly, because it will be applied to other areas that are subject to the same legislation.
We’ve already had a number of areas of dispute with employers, who are pushing us to get to the table. We’re pushing back, arguing essential services agreements need to be well underway before negotiations can begin
All unions have been working on draft bargaining proposals. The Health Care group – with NSGEU acting as lead – will go to the table first, using the former Local 42 collective agreement as a baseline in developing a new global collective agreement.
We expect to meet again in late October, and are optimistic that we will begin bargaining as early as December.
For our group home and home support sectors, we have decided to negotiate at common tables, rather than individually. These groups will likely return in October to proceed with bargaining preparations.
GOVERNMENT & EDUCATION
Grant Vaughan, Director of Negotiations & Servicing for the Government & Education team, began by explaining that our post-secondary Locals are currently in the midst of, completed or just starting negotiations, under the threat of Bill 100, as well as facing ongoing reduced funding. These things could trigger layoffs at each of these institutions.
He told the delegation that the transfer of Nova Scotia Agricultural College employees to Dalhousie is finally complete, and reminded them that in these types of transfer situations, there is no requirement on the new employer to respect collective agreements.
Additionally, our Local 50 members (Sherbrooke Village) have ratified their new agreement.
He explained that we are still battling layoffs/reductions of employees, reorganizations, privatization and the creation of new crown corporations within the civil service. Vaughan explained that the government is not honouring certain collective agreement provisions, such as the job security memorandum, though we expect to have a decision on the job security arbitration by Halloween.
Civil service bargaining is scheduled to start in late October, with dates scheduled throughout November and December, as well.
Members of NSGEU’s Communications Department, Ian Johnson and Holly Fraughton, gave a presentation to the delegation on the union’s latest campaign, “McNeil’s Movers,” which aims to combat public service cuts and privatization (for more information on this campaign, please see page 8).
Finally, after hearing a brief presentation from the NSGEU’s Political Action Committee about the upcoming federal election, the delegation split off into working groups based on where they are located throughout the province. These regional committees proposed events to be held in their area over the coming weeks and months to help raise public awareness of the McNeil’s Movers campaign and to continue our efforts to stop the downsizing and privatization of public services and members’ jobs.